2004 Expedition Blog - Day 12


Tuesday, 21 September 2004, 17:34 (CF2 time)


Quentin Cooper


2004 Expedition

Edge of darkness
Attachments: 3 images
Polar bear scurring off at a fast amble, buttocks a-wobble Female crew - with life jackets - preparing for their Arctic calendar shot Part-frozen lake on Edge Island shows patterns etched by the wind

On edge and off balance, Svalbard continually defies predictions, counters intuitions, confounds expectations. Yesterday it threw us some narwhals, despite the crew never having seen such whales in these waters before. Today - on Edge Island, home to one of the planet's greatest concentrations of polar bears - it gave us a pair of showdowns with the creatures that made them seem more like the cutified cartoon version from old Fox's glacier mint ads and even older Cresta drinks commercials* than the reason we have to take guns with us every time we go ashore.

In the first, a bear and a reindeer headed straight for each other but instead of attacking, the bear just sidled by in its curiously sloth-like way. In the second we surprised a big one less than a hundred metres away, but it opted to scurry off at a fast amble, buttocks a-wobble. Both encounters were comically anti-climactic. Another time of year, though, or another few metres closer, and the results of either might have been very different. But not only are we on Edge Island - named after the Lancashire merchant seaman Thomas Edge and now Norwegianised to Edgeøya - we've arrived here on the vernal equinox, right on the edge of summer and the long, long arctic winter. Food is scarce, fat reserves are low and it seems our two bears opted to save their energy for surviving the months ahead…and for prey where victory is more assured. A quick prod at the faeces of one of the bears - the sort of thing you do almost instinctively after a couple of weeks up here - confirms its recent diet has been largely grass.

Realising that even this most dextrous and determined of Arctic killers knows to make judgements about when to attack and when to conserve is another reminder that us having boats, guns, thermals and these daily broadcasts is no substitute for being the only creature that's still too dim to grasp that there's a fantastically complex interplay between this apparently bleak and barren environment and its inhabitants, and that it's an edgy equilibrium we are still doing far more to wreck than to preserve.

Quentin Cooper

*It's frothy man!

2004 expedition route map