Svalbard 2011 – Polar Bear vs Seal

The seal is the main diet of the polar bear, and it’s no easy meal. Seals spend most of their time in the sea, and there they are mostly safe from their predator, who doesn’t stand a chance swimming or diving after its prey. In winter, the main hunting strategy for the bear is to crouch down at the edge of a hole in the pack ice and wait for a seal to pop up for breathing. But in summer the pack ice is mostly gone, replaced by scattered ice floes leaving all the space for the seals to surface and breathe safely. However seals do need some rest on a regular basis, lifting themselves on top of an ice floe and drowsing for a few hours. And there they need to stay alert, because this is when they are vulnerable to hunting bears.

During the July cruise, we stopped at the edge of the beautiful Lilliehook glacier on the western coast of Svalbard and boarded the zodiacs to explore the surroundings. Soon we spotted a bearded seal on top of an ice floe and started moving slowly toward him. As long as you remain still and paddle gently toward them, seals can be extremely confiding to people and allow close encounters. As we were still a good 500 feet away, someone on the other zodiac spotted a polar bear swimming stealthily among ice floes, in the direction of the seal. Incredible luck, we were about to witness a rarely (if ever) seen wildlife episode. The bear was taking all precautions to remain out of sight from the seal, swimming behind larger ice floes, keeping its head and body almost completely submerged, only betrayed by the thin wake it left behind behind on an otherwise mirror-like water surface. Watching the scene through a telephoto lens, i was switching back and forth from the confident looking seal to the stealthy predator, mentally preparing myself for the climax by going through the full check list of camera settings that would allow the best possible capture.

Approximately 10 meters from the seal the bear took a dive and the fate of the prey appeared to be, well, sealed, but it somehow managed to foil the plot seconds before the fatal issue, and as the head of the bear finally emerged in a splash of water, the seal had already started to move away, its huge body bouncing a couple of times over the ice before plunging into the sea, leaving a dejected bear behind it.

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