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Not many creatures have been so fascinating to us humans for the past centuries as the polar bear. Once hunted with guns, today the great white bear is hunted with cameras and binoculars for a different kind of shooting. Seeing a polar bear in its natural habitat is something that features on many a pioneering soul's bucketlist, but what is it like when you are able to fulfil that wish?
"It's almost like a dream – finally on my way to a place and a life that I've read so much about. Even a few years ago, I couldn't have dreamed that I would have a chance to take a trip like this.”
– Polar bear hunter Knut Bjåen, 1946, from Birger Amundsens' book Without Mercy, on hunting in the Arctic.
Imagine you are on an excursion at Gnålodden, Hornsund, southwest of Spitsbergen, Svalbard, famous for its population of sea birds and the almost legendary polar bears. Picture thousands of sea birds wheeling around in the sky above you, creating a cacophony of noise.
Wanny Wolstad, a polar bear hunter of old, would have looked out at this same sight from her small hut, sitting perched on the stones and surrounded by snow. It was in this tight space that she raised her two sons in the 1930s and began her thrill-seeking search for the polar bear, the great 'trophy' that it was considered. Inside the hut the beds still stand and it is not too difficult to imagine her sitting on her bed writing to a magazine in Tromsø about her hunting experiences. Rugged up against the cold, the wooden slats barely keeping out the harsh winds and with a chorus of bird shrieks as her soundtrack, she recounted this of her time in Svalbard:
"Wonderful! Despite the danger, tension and difficulty, it's ideal. I wouldn't trade it for anything…Svalbard is in my blood.”
In spite of the harshness of life on Svalbard, Wolstad was not alone in her enthusiasm. Now follow us east in your minds eye towards the fjord, scanning the ground for signs of the elusive giant. Suddenly you spot something in the snow, some disturbance – could they be animal tracks? Excitement builds as you easily fit your foot into the imprint and then look out to the east, following the line of the trail. The expedition team leader confirms what you already know – a polar bear was here not so long ago. And so the hunt begins.
Imagine only hours earlier as the Hurtigruten ship slowly made its way into a fjord on the southwest side of Svalbard, there was a loud exclamation followed by the shutter of camera lenses that follows wildlife-hungry travellers everywhere. 'There! A polar bear!' It is then that you felt lucky to even spot one from afar, looking dwarfed against the large mountains.
You have just emerged from a storm across the Barents Sea, and feeling woozy after the ship's rocking but like a true explorer, you revel in your first sighting of a wild polar bear. 'Can it get better than this?' you ask yourself.
The bubble is burst when Manuel Marin, ornithologist and Hurtigruten expert shakes his head ruefully. "I'm afraid you are looking at a stone!"
You can't help but chuckle despite your disappointment. "The art of seeing has to do with the ability to identify unnatural shapes and colours against the background. That is much too dark against the white background."
"Listen to Manuel! He was raised by eagles!" shouts one of his colleagues. You all try your hardest to engage in the art of seeing, fine tune whatever innate hunting sense you might have in your DNA, a throwback to times of survival of the fittest. Here, on the thin sea ice stretching 200 metres out from the land, there are seals and where there are seals, there is usually a polar bear nearby. With Arctic wind whipping against your hands and face, your senses are all alert, fingers gripping binoculars at the ready for a glimpse of yellow white movement.
You've dreamed about this moment since you booked in your Arctic exploration – heck, this was one of the reasons you booked the Arctic exploration! And then, just as the tension is building to bursting point, there is a cry from someone on the lower deck and a loudspeaker crackles into action.
"Ladies and gentlemen, on the portside, at 11 o'clock, we have…a polar bear. Right to the left of the small island in the ice, you can see blocks of ice. One meter to the right, a polar bear is lying and sleeping. He just moved!"
Now that you have seen it, you hardly know what to do! Everyone stares, bustles on decks with camera in hands, the contagious excitement coursing through the crowd. When you lay eyes on the bear you forget your camera and just watch him, sleeping rather peacefully. A streak of gold amongst the white. The majestic, ferocious predator looks like a friendly pet, a big version of a child's prized teddy. The only thing that reveals his hunting instincts is a smear of red on his muzzle.
Now imagine that this is not a daydream at all: you're not staring at your screen in the comfort of your home or on your commute from work, but you are onboard your Hurtigruten cruise, in the Arctic Circle, a polar bear laying on the ice right in front of you.