27 September – 81° 45’N, 6° 34’W
The phone rings. It’s just about 11pm.
“Get up here, there’s a bear.”
It’s Kevin Hand, calling from the ship’s observation deck. Six decks below, I’m just snuggling in for the night.
“Seriously?!” I asked. (Hand, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is pretty good at pranking me.)
I slid into my shoes, slung my camera over a shoulder and sprinted down the hallway, collecting folks along the way.
We sped up to deck nine and found a dozen scientists already gathered outside — some wearing pyjamas, at least one in gym shorts — breathing foggy clouds into the frigid Arctic air and staring at a distant, icy ridge.
About two hundred meters away, two small, creamy smudges were casually making their way across the snow-covered ground: a mama bear, and her rather large cub. The polar bears were smaller and yellower than I had expected – somewhat off-colored splotches painted onto a mostly monochrome evening landscape, and they sometimes disappeared behind jumbled piles of ice.
The ship’s crew shined a spotlight on the pair, and the mama bear occasionally paused and looked in our direction. Cameras clicked, binoculars were passed around, and the bears continued on, gracefully skirting ridges and frozen ponds amidst continued guidance on their position from sharper-eyed team members and exclamations of “#$&! it’s cold out here!”.
Of the Arctic’s megafauna, polar bears are pretty much number one on everyone’s wish-list of critters to see (narwhals are up there, too), though they’re almost perfectly camouflaged in this frozen sea. Curiously, though, these bears are not actually white. Rather, their skin is black – and covered by layers and layers of translucent, hollow hairs that scatter visible light and lend the bears a whitish appearance. Threatened by shrinking sea ice, the polar bear population is diminishing. Yet here, off the Greenland coast, the bear density is said to be among the highest on the planet.
Locked in thick, multi-year ice for more than 48 hours now, we’d been expecting to see the opportunistic, unpredictable carnivores at any moment, but until last night, had seen only a smattering of pawprints (and about a half-dozen seals).
As the bears escaped our spotlight and moved into the Arctic twilight, I turned away from the indigo sky to head back inside. To the southwest, a crystalline moon carved a gleaming white crescent into the orange, sun-stained horizon – it was the first glimpse we’ve had of the evening sky’s inhabitants since we’d left port.
I high-fived Hand (who had not been joking), and thanked Victor Naklicki, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who’d first spotted the pair (and now has a reputation to maintain!); and now, tucked back into bed, I am busy embedding those precious bears, a razor-sharp lunar sliver and icy blue ridges into my memory. The Arctic as we know it is disappearing – will these scenes even exist in a decade or two?
Nadia Drake is a contributing writer at National Geographic, and is on assignment with the HACON team as it explores the Aurora hydrothermal vent field.