Today we're at the bird cliffs where hundreds of Murres and Kittiwakes nest in the clifftops. The ice we are standing on will be open ocean in another couple of months. For now, ~ a half mile of frozen sea separates the cliffs from the open ocean and there is a constant cacophony of squawking overhead as the birds travel between their nests and the sea.
Since I'm not much of a bird watcher, I busy myself following a set of polar bear tracks around the edge of the cliffs. I begin to explore one of the deeper recesses of the caverns beneath the cliffs when our tour leader stops me and insists that I bring one of our armed Inuit guides with me. The tracks are fresh from this morning and he doesn't want me to encounter a bear unprepared.
I reemerge into the sunlight and begin walking along the edge of the cliffs, admiring the birds above. Sheatie, one of the tribal elders and our best wildlife spotter, approaches me on his snowmobile. "Nanook" he says pointing. I know the word, but I don't see any polar bears in the direction he is indicating. I only see a vast expanse of ice from here to the sea. He hands me his binoculars and adjusts them to the exact pinprick that he spotted in the distance, a mother polar bear. I can only distinguish the bear from the ice by the slight yellowish tinge to her fur. He moves the binoculars a little to the left and shows me that she has two cubs with her. " Can we get closer without disturbing her?" I ask. He nods.
Our small group sets off walking quietly across the snow. The bears are ~ a kilometer away and even from this distance the snowmobiles could scare them. We approach cautiously, stopping every so often to make sure that we aren't disturbing her. She's intent on a hole in the ice, waiting patiently at the edge for a seal to emerge to feed her young ones. We stop finally about 100 yards away where we can all take photos and watch the playful cubs without interfering. Even from this distance, they notice our presence and are curious. They stand up and start sniffing the air, eager to find out more about us. Mama bear eventually notices that her cubs are no longer resting quietly and peeks up to see what has attracted their interest. She assesses us and walks over to her cubs, indicating that it is time to go.
They start to walk away and then stop another 20 yards beyond. Mama looks at us again. Content that we have not approached her any further, she doubles back with her cubs in tow to return to her seal hole. Her concentration is split between us and the seal hole. Unlucky in the hunt, she finally gathers her cubs once again and heads over to a nearby iceberg to scout prey from above.