Polar Bears Cure Seasickness

24 Jul 2013

Students on Ice Arctic Expedition 2013

Personally I think one of my shipmates called the bad weather down on us. 
We left the coast of Greenland and headed into the Davis Strait. We woke in the morning to calm winds and a flat sea, highly unusual for this part of the world. A comment was made -- I won’t reveal who since what is said on the ship is supposed to stay on the ship -- that the sea was too calm.
“Where’s the challenge in that?” Meaning: you won’t get a true Arctic experience if you don’t meet bad weather and get sick. 
Well, we did and many did. The winds came up and, as we entered Canadian waters later in the afternoon, a combination of strange currents and a climbing wind speed started bouncing the ship around. A lot. In fact some experienced hands commented that the waves were unusual for this spot at this time of year. 
Whether they were or not, many people took to their beds. There is something about being on a ship, feeling seasick that puts things in perspective. Like how good the weather has been to date and how lucky we have been. However, being sick is part of the experience. As an Inuit elder said on an earlier expedition to students just getting their legs back under them, “Doesn’t it make you feel like a human being?”
The feeling of being human returned in a hurry this morning when we approached pack ice as we headed into Cumberland Sound a massive opening on the eastern coast of Baffin Island. As soon as a polar bear was spotted, all of the teenagers on board came alive. 
“Make sure you dress warmly! No running! One hand for the ship!” said expedition leader Geoff Green over the public address system from the bridge, where he and some of the crew had been looking for bears. These are not idle commands: it was extremely cold amidst the ice, which covered about 50 per cent of the water surface. The ship’s stabilizers had been retracted when we entered the sea ice so the admonishment to walk and hold on to the railings with one hand was important given the pitching around we were doing in wide, rolling swells driven by a 30 knot wind behind us. 
The young bear was asleep on an ice pan. Dozens of students gathered along the rails, cameras and binoculars in hand. The bear yawned and sat up, aware of our presence as the ship edged along the ice. Nose in the air, he caught our scent. The smell of humans -- a lot of humans -- is rarely good news to a polar bear, so he got up. At that instant, the entire student body saw him and a loud joyous exclamation burst forth from 70 pairs of young lungs.
Ear drums assaulted by the kids’ enthusiasm at sighting their first ursus maritimus (and it was a first for many of the 30 Inuit students on board as well), the bear slipped into the frigid water and began to swim away. It turned back to look a couple of times as it headed off in the water, climbing on other ice pans, and moving off into the distance.
The lesson about shrieking and noise set in quickly. The next nine polar bears weren’t annoyed away by loud voices. 
Polar bear, Cumberland Sound, Nunavut © John Crump.


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