Home»Galleries»Svalbard (the North Pole & Polar Bears) & Norway Fjordland - July 2011
About 1800 kilometers north north of Oslo, Norway, lies Svalbard, an archipelago spanning some 800 kilometers from north to south. It is a wonderful place to explore on an ice-breaking ship; and the general pattern for these voyages is to sail from Longyearbyen, the administrative center of the archipelago, northward to above 81 degrees north. At this extreme latitude, 1600 kilometers above the Arctic Circle (at 66.56 degrees north) and within 1000 kilometers of the North Pole, the summer sun never even comes close to setting.
The wildlife in this archipelago includes up to 20 types of marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, seals and walruses; land mammals, including Arctic Fox and Svalbard Reindeer; and sea birds, including Kittiwakes, Glaucous Gulls, Skuas and other wonderful gulls, Murres (also called Guillemots), Auks, Puffins, and Eiders.
But the Holy Grail of the Arctic wildlife in this area is the Polar Bear, the largest carnivore in the world. Along with the omnivorous Kodiak Bear, which is about the same size, it is the world’s largest bear. Male Polar Bears grow up to 10 feet in length and up to 1500 pounds. Females grow to about half that size.
Surprisingly, Polar Bears are classified as “marine mammals” and have been known to swim for days and up to 300 kilometers. Unlike Grizzly Bears (and Kodiak Bears), Polar Bears are not territorial. However, also unlike Grizzlies and Kodiaks that are omnivores and live mostly on berries and other plants, Polar Bears are strictly carnivorous; and their diet consists mostly of seals. It is virtually impossible for Polar Bears to catch seals in the water and almost as rare for them to catch healthy seals on land. Instead, they do their hunting at the interface between water, ice, and air. Most commonly, Polar Bears use their excellent sense of smell to locate a seal breathing hole in the ice. They crouch nearby, and, when a seal exhales, the bear smells its breath, reaches into the hole with its paw, and drags the seal out.
Because Polar Bears rely on the presence of ice for their success in hunting seals, serious problems can arise when the ice recedes. As the ice flow recedes each summer, most of these animals stay with and live on the ice and are able to hunt successfully. However, some are inadvertently left behind on the land; and, for these Polar Bears, hunting becomes extremely difficult, life is hard, and many will become quite thin. At this point, they mostly scavenge for carrion and other opportunistic items. Hungry Polar Bears have been known to kill and eat humans; and, indeed, exactly such an incident took place in July 2011, just after the photographer left Svalbard.
Environmental Note. As a result of the growing specter of anthropogenic climate change, the Arctic ice cap is rapidly dwindling. Because Polar Bears require ice, in order to catch their prey, the disappearance of this ice flow presents a very serious threat to the continued survival of the species. At the present time, the Polar Bear is listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and it is the first species to be protected under the Act due to climate change.