12 April 2015

A picture is worth a thousand words

"Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words."
--
Martin Luther King Jr.


As unbelievable as it sounds, my favorite animals in the world are not polar bears, but they're a close second.  Nevermind that I sleep with two of them every night or adopted one from World Wildlife Fund.  Polar bears are printed on my clothes, reusable shopping bags, credit card, bookmark and within the Greenpeace calendar I purchase annually.  Polar bears not only secure my online banking, they hang from my Christmas tree & decorate my skydiving logbook.
In the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the polar bear a.k.a. Ursus maritimus was idolized.  The animal was pictured on almost every store's postcards and plastic bags. A statue of one was erected near the grocery store and another by Skinnboden Sporting Goods.  It was the logo for Svalbardbutikken, the territory's website, Spitsbergen Guesthouse, Svalbard Snøscooterutleie AS & Olaf Storø.  An upright, stuffed mascot towered over guests in the lobby of the Radisson Blu.  One step inside the Arctic Museum & it was clear this bear received the most attention of Svalbard's fauna, as it adorned the cover of nearly every tourist pamphlet.  And who wouldn't be proud to have this cunning animal as its mascot?  Not to mention they may be the world's most resilient mammal.  Since the Earth is heating & its ice melting at an unprecedented rate, Ursus Maritimus' are traveling lengthier distances for food, swimming further to the ice shelves, producing smaller litters and enduring more months on their fat supply.  National Geographic predicted that by the end of this century -- the end of our children's lifetime! -- the Arctic could lack ice entirely. 

Svalbard is arguably the largest encampment of polar bears in the world.  Each soul on the archipelago was advised to carry a firearm -- in fact "a high-powered hunting rifle"-- whence trekking since the isbjørns a.k.a. polar bears (directly translated from Norwegian as "icebear") roamed freely & were more abundant than humans.  Ironically, the bears thrive here because they are viewed in the most serious and dangerous light.  Each polar bear is privileged with a warning shot.  Consequently, it is ordained a person only has "the right to shoot in self defence, but all shots against a polar bear have to be reported to the Governor of Svalbard and will be investigated."  

As decreed, "The polar bear is a protected specie. It is illegal to chase, entice or feed polar bears or to disturb them unnecessarily. Offenders of these regulations will be prosecuted."  So, the M/S Expedition -- with Mom & I aboard -- cast away from Longyearbyen to find these megafauna. Day 2 featured an intimate excursion with walruses & many visitors were tickled.  Day 3 was the most beautiful of the entire 10 days at sea & featured mountain faces striped white with snow, panoramic views, an abandoned mining town, discovering a hvalross a.k.a. walrus + female reindeer + Rock Ptarmigan, abundant sunshine, valley glaciers, and an aquamarine sky that mimicked the icebergs' color.

The ship sailed through 79º N towards Liefdefjorden without a sign of icebears.  I was undoubtedly enjoying the pitstops & scenery.  Throughout the 9% of the world I have traveled and the google of places I've seen through media, I have yet to see a locale as breath-taking as Svalbard.  However, this was not what I forked out $5,000 for!

On day 4 Mom & I received the unavoidable wake-up call over the PA system at 07:00, but I was tired and promptly fell back asleep in our unlit, corner cabin. I'm not sure if it was absolute hopefulness, a woman's intuition, or the break in routine that alerted me, but as soon as I heard the expedition leader's voice return to the loudspeaker 20 minutes later, I knew why.  I bolted upright as Jon (the expedition leader) formed his first sentence.  As the word "mother" transmitted through the PA I flew into a frenzy.  Eight limbs flailed everywhere, so I grabbed whatever was in the immediate vicinity & ran out the door, leaving Mom in the wake.  I hurdled every other step with crooked glasses, eyes half open, ear plugs still embedded, arms overloaded with the winter gear I didn't have time to put on in the room, and flip flops.  I was hardly dressed for public, let alone 5º C!

On deck, the breakfast crowd had already amassed and I was too late to acquire a prime spot near the port-side rail.  Since the M/S Expedition only carried 93 guests, there was enough room for everyone (myself included) to -- eventually -- have a front-row seat.  Mom was somewhere else port-side.  I didn't think to grab my binoculars but the telephoto lens on my Canon covered the distance.  Back and forth, back and forth I scanned the horizon for a hint of movement or anything out of the ordinary.  Where were the mother & cub?  The older lady next to me in a red coat pointed toward the isbjørns, but it wasn't easy to follow the imaginary line from her finger since the boat fitfully rocked.  Then Kevin passed by & instructed my grouping.
Kevin:    Do you see the ice mound out there?
Me:         [in my head] No!
Guests:   [aloud] Yes.
K:            3 o' clock; follow the divot in the land.
Me:         [in my head]  Where the hell is the ice mound?
Guests:   [aloud] Okay....
K:           And just over that bank -- oh, there goes the mother!
Guests:   [aloud] OH WOW!
Me:         [in my head]  DAMMIT!
Me:         [aloud]  Where?
Kevin & Guests: [altogether] Right there!
(see the bears on the right?)

Nothing.  Kevin remarked that the bears had disappeared behind a hill of snow.  Still, I surveyed the area through my zoomed lens. Minutes went by without another sighting.  Gradually, the pleased travelers returned indoors and the M/S Expedition cruised on.  Mom & I rejoined but -- despite our different vantage points -- were both robbed of the polar bear experience.

Livid, I cursed my luck!  Why didn't I just get up and eat breakfast?  Why was I as blind as a mole? How was I the only person on the entire boat who missed a thousand-pound, 7-foot-long animal? This could not be the "Realm Of The Polar Bear" experience I paid for! I remained on deck in flip flops, trying to glimpse the megafauna everyone had observed for the last twenty minutes.  Overflowing with odium, I returned to the cabin & properly dressed myself, namely in closed-toed boots.  I returned to my outdoor post and redoubled my efforts as a scout.

After twenty boring minutes in the cold, the PA announced the mother & offspring were starboard on Vesle Andøya.  I beamed for I was in a prime location.  I also straddled my legs & reserved room for my mother as shipmates flooded the deck again.  In the distance, a bear -- who could easily be mistaken for a patch of snow -- disappeared into a valley, but I had spotted one of them!
It was impossible to gauge the isbjørn's size (and therefore, age) from the sea & through my lens... until the cub emerged from the same valley!  With toddler in tow, the bears leisurely crossed Vesle Andøya.  Although the yearling maintained the same proximity to its mother -- not too close, but never too far -- the pair clearly functioned as one.  When Mama Bear turned away from the ship, so did the 2 year-old.  When Mama Bear rolled around in the grass, so did the 2 year-old.  Baby Bear mirrored Mama in both physical appearance and skills. She had taught & protected him well thus far, and for humans who understand the threatened life Polar Bears lead, it was an auspicious sign for the species.
The family meandered into the distance and behind hills so the M/S Expedition sailed out of Liefdefjorden's mouth toward Grusbukta. I sat in the dining room gazing out the window.  If that was all I would see of Polar Bears, I could be happy.  They were free & going about their routine, something very few humans are privy to witness!  The sun rose higher in the sky and introduced hints of blue to an otherwise dingy scene. As my morning high faded I crashed into my single bed, lesson learned.  I would not be caught off-guard again.  I vowed to be prepared from now until the boat threw anchor at Longyearbyen.  The Canon no longer rested in its case.  It waited on-call next to my bed.  Gloves were always restored to my jacket's pockets.  Most importantly, I slept fully clothed (even with socks on), ready to dash to the railing.  In my mind, it was a minuscule effort to increase my odds of seeing another icebear, because I craved more.

My preventative measures soon paid off when the proclamation of a lone Polar Bear resonated below deck an hour later. I made it to the viewing platform in record time & noticed a boar (adult male) bounding across the fragmented ice and -- once -- pounding on it [to punch a hole to the possible prey underneath].  It was a brief encounter and after just five minutes the megafauna sought opportunities too shallow or iced over for the M/S Expedition to follow.  As the Ursus sauntered away from the boat, the sun poked through the clouds, shadowing the middle-ground, & transformed the hav a.k.a. ocean swells into blinding swaths of white that matched the snow rolling down the coal mountains.  In my most vivid dream I could never have envisioned a more awesome scene!

The next calendar day -- for it was always light here -- the M/S Expedition had crossed the 80th parallel & skirted the edge of the famous Polar Ice Cap a.k.a. Arctic Ice Pack.  Undeniably, everyone noted the difference in landscape.  The mountains & ocean were replaced by a proliferation of snow + ice strata, floating like lilypads.

At 80º 15.90' N | 015º 14.50' E the trip reached its zenith for me.  On Saturday, 29 June 2013, sometime after 15:00, the M/S Expedition sailed upon a gruesome scene:  An extremely hefty (around 1,300 pound) icebear -- and some Arctic Glaucous -- feasted on a freshly killed grønlandssel a.k.a. Harp Seal.  Vibrant red blood stained its snout & the outlying ice, but I was hardly appalled. I was thrilled for the bear!  Unlike the sow & yearling yesterday who were rummaging Arctic Tern nests, this male was visibly thriving off his staple prey and would survive a few more days.
Only after the megafauna ate his fill, did he become inquisitive of the Swedish ship nearby & indubitably, its array of foreign smells. To me it made perfect sense. This boar was the king of the Arctic & top of the food chain.  What's more, he was the world's largest land predator; no lion nor rhinoceros nor grizzly bear bested him.  He had no identifiable enemies save humans, which were scarce at the Polar Ice Cap.  No, the multitudes did not pay a small fortune to come hunt the isbjørns  [like in the United States, Canada + Greenland] -- instead, to marvel at them.
Sated, the enormous polar bear cleaned himself by vigorously barrel-rolling on a sheet of ice, then plopped down for a proper nap.  The vibe cooled as bear slept, but now another boar had wandered into frame from the east!  The roughly 1,000 pound megafauna took his sweet time ambling toward the first male: he paused & certainly examined the other scents (as indicated by the raised nose & neck), then gracefully stepped over mounds of snow; he wicked away the moisture after crossing an area the size of an above-ground pool.




Adding to the electricity caused by the presence of a second polar bear, the first awoke & the pair advanced directly toward each other!  I unsettlingly anticipated a "Royal Rumble." I did not want to watch the bjørns duke it out for territory.  I wanted these endangered creatures to happily live out their days with peace, love & a full belly.  However, the initial bjørn lowered his head, looking recalcitrant and focused, as he stalked the second.  I shivered, from the beast's glowering and the howling wind.  At this pace, they would be upon each other in a minute.

Transfixed with curiosity and fear I realized I was snapping photos continuously of one or both of the polar bears.  I probably had 30 images of the creatures where only one paw differed in position, or a head was turned ever so slightly more! I mean how much does one ice bear traversing snow really differ from another?  Moments before the megafauna collided, I stopped taking photos.  I had been so caught up in the hype that I was looking at everything from an analytical & compositional perspective.  What was the optimal shutter setting for this type of lighting? Could I zoom in a hair more? Quick, capture a photo of the animal coming out of the water!

As soon as I relieved myself of my self-imposed tourist duties, the sighting took on an entirely different feel… it became enough. It became whole-heartedly fulfilling to watch the Ursidae lollygag, explore, snooze and make sense of the world.  The scene no longer felt like a tourist rush -- waiting for the isbjørns to perform a simple daily task like pooping, then glorify it. That was the key: to realize that the past 90 minutes on deck were priceless because the bears were completely unfettered.  The ship was so close now that I set down my telephoto lens & simply observed. 

When the polar bears approached each other I held my breath; when they taciturnly decided they rather liked hanging out together I cried.  When the M/S Expedition eventually backed away I was elated but with a sad overtone.  For I had been striving for the best photograph to return home with, like a trophy of my time in the Arctic.  I did not grasp – until I ceased fussing with my camera – that no shot nor video nor blog entry could justly extrapolate on the journey, my intrinsic journey.