In some places, the food chain gets down-right personal. In the high Arctic, a careless human is not a top predator; he is a meal. Polar Bears are methodical hunters, showing no fear of humans. When hungry, they are white death on paws.
In 2007 the U.S. Navy and I were helping the Smithsonian Institution Scientific Diving Program teach a course on under-ice diving in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, an international research town a relatively short distance from the North Pole. Ny-Alesund is the most-northern continuously occupied settlement, and is occupied year-round by scientists and support personnel.
The fjord adjacent to Ny-Alesund is normally covered in 4-5 feet of sea ice in the springtime, making it an ideal location for training in under-ice diving. To gain access to the water, ringed seals travel some distance from land to find holes penetrating the ice, through which they enter and exit the water beneath the ice. And polar bears walk out on the ice to patiently wait for the seals to reappear, and be gobbled up.
In 2007, the sea ice was gone. The polar bears’ food was not concentrated around breathing holes, and thus the bears were not catching many seals. They were hungry.
By law, the resident and visiting scientists had to carry rifles with them when they ventured away from the icy town to do research in the surrounding hills. But in town, no weapons were required. Polar Bears simply didn’t come into town.
Until one night.
There is only one bar in Ny-Alesund, and it specialized in serving Jesus Drinks during parties. A Jesus Drink is any alcoholic mixture served with glacial ice that is roughly two thousand years old. Get it?
On the night of the bear sighting, a petite Australian doctor friend of mine was walking back from the bar alone, and as she approached the dormitories, she saw a polar bear passing along the side of the dorm I was in. As it disappeared around a corner of the building she was left wondering if she was hallucinating. To make sure of what she saw, she ran across the end of the building just in time to see the white bear reemerge, calmly walking down a snowy road. Since she was close by, I clearly heard her yell the alarm, “Polar Bear in Town!”
The bear was headed towards the area where about a dozen Greenland Huskies, used for pulling sleds, were tied down for the night. So the deathly calm of the Arctic night was shattered by a female doctor yelling at the top of her lungs, while the vulnerable dogs were barking to save their lives — literally.
Of course I hopped out of bed, threw on my multiple layers of Long Johns, slipped into my Arctic parka and gloves and headed out the door to see the bear.
As luck would have it, our experienced dive team leader from the Smithsonian was walking in as I was headed out.
“John, you’re heading outside, in the dark, with a bear close by, and you have no gun.”
“Hmm… I see what you mean.” I hadn’t looked at it from the perspective of a hungry bear. I turned around and went back to bed.
The next morning we found bear tracks a plenty. The dogs had scared off the bear apparently, since he didn’t claim any animals. Lucky dogs.
Well, the next evening we happened to have a party, with plenty of glowing blue Jesus ice. Although the walk to the bar, down a snowy road with no protection from the elements had not seemed daunting in the fading polar daylight, things were different when I returned to the dorm about midnight, by myself.
There was no moon so the sky was pitch black, but everything else was white, except for me. My parka was brown, and in retrospect made me look a bit like a muffin. And of course I knew that out there in the whiteness, somewhere, was a brazen, hungry bear looking for a snack.
I had never thought of myself as a potential meal, until then.
My head was on a swivel, and my not-yet dark adapted eyes were peering towards the most distant snow and ice, in all directions, looking for a movement that might warn me of a bear. And then the huskies started yelping again, in obvious alarm. That was when I realized that by the time I saw the white on white predator, he would have me. They’re fast, and I had nowhere to run for safety. I was in the open.
That is a curious feeling, knowing that you could be taken like a hunter takes a deer.
I wondered how badly it would hurt.
Well, with that Jesus ice coursing through my veins, I felt safe. That is, I felt safe once I was back in the dorm, snug in my bed.
As I lay there trying to fall asleep, I couldn’t help but reflect on how primal a fear it is, that fear of being eaten.