Polar Bears

August 14

Mom and a pair of cub polar bears interrupted a great game of table tennis and for that I can forgive them. I hadn’t picked up a ping pong paddle in at least 10 years, and not played the game in—ever—really. It’s one of those I-hate-running-for-the-ball sort of games, no better than tennis when you start to include all the garage or lab furniture to go fishing under. Unlike an old lawn-mover, the -80 freezers are something to watch out for.

So, I was surprised I’m not yet completely inept, and there’s something wonderful about basic reflexes and the judgement of angles and an instinctual desire to put english on everything served—and while badminton and fencing are nothing like table tennis, muscle memory can be something blissfully in-specific. All that work put in early can last a lifetime swimming between interrupted ice floes.

I am happy to report that polar bears in the wild look exactly as I expected them to, and move perfectly.

The polar bears interrupted most work happening on ship, including several crew who had planned on sleeping. But three ice bears together on a floe within shouting distance of the port side rail is something to wake a few mates for. This must be the gold standard.

9pm in the Arctic on an August evening. The horizon and the water had already begun to turn gold, but it was easy to miss that. Not only weren’t the three bears running and then swimming away like all the solo bears we’d seen so far—the family walked towards us. Mom lifted her head. She checked us out. She looked right at us plenty. And the polar yearlings played bear cub games. They nursed. They tried to throw chunks of ice. One of the cubs practiced pounding on seal dens.

The bear cubs were snow white puffballs next to their mother. She was characteristically yellow, round and healthy, her face slightly bloody from her last meal. The cubs were clean and still nursing. One cub picked up a plate sized chunk of ice in his mouth and carried it like dog toy towards his mother.

The low sun and the stiff wind gave the sea a hard look—crazy shallow like a frozen pond. And my heart skipped a beat in some form of misplaced worry for the lone parent and the cubs at the edge of the ice. One cub lagged behind. Another ran out in front. Because where that ice ended and the edge became water, the water is 50 meters deep over the shallow shelf and several hundred down across the break. That seemed to matter.

The ice floes in snapshot look static, grounded, and immovable. But as time rolled on towards twilight, the evening ice shifted like stage flats in a Gaumont animation. Of course, the Arctic is changing. No one sees a polar bear today and does not think this. The bears use the ice to hunt seals, and there is less ice now.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.